**SfC Home > Physics > Gravitation >**

# Cavendish Experiment to Measure Gravitational Constant

by Ron Kurtus (revised 6 February 2017)

The * Cavendish Experiment* is a clever way to

*that is stated in the*

**measure the Gravitational Constant***Universal Gravitation Equation*. The constant was not determined until many years after Isaac Newton first formulated his equation.

This experiment used a torsion balance device to attract lead balls together, measuring the torque on a wire and equating it to the gravitational force between the balls. Then by a complex derivation, the value of **G** was determined.

Questions you may have include:

- What is the background of the Cavendish Experiment?
- What is the experimental setup?
- What is the derived equation for
**G**?

This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion

## Background of experiment

Isaac Newton formulated the *Universal Gravitation Equation* in 1687:

F = GMm/R^{2}

where

**F**is the force of attraction between objects in newtons (N)**G**is the Universal Gravitational Constant in in N-m^{2}/kg^{2}or m^{3}/kg-s^{2}**M**is the mass of the larger object in kg**m**is the mass of the smaller object in kg**R**is the separation between the centers of mass of the object in meters

After Newton formulated the equation, there really wasn't much interest in **G**. Most scientists simply considered it a proportionality constant. Also, they were more interested in gravity than in gravitation.

### Cavendish performs experiment

In 1798, Henry Cavendish performed an experiment to determine the density of the Earth, which would be useful in astronomical measurements. He used a torsion balance invented by geologist John Mitchell to accurately measure the force of attraction between two masses.

From this measurement, he determined the mass of the Earth and then its density. In Cavendish's published paper on the experiment, he gave the value for the density and mass of the Earth but never mentioned the value for **G**.

### Scientists determine value of G

It wasn't until 1873 that other scientists repeated the experiment and documented the value for **G**. The value for **G** implied from Cavendish's experiment was very accurate and within 1% of present-day measurements.

Because his experiment ultimately determined the value for **G**, Cavendish has been often incorrectly given credit for determining the gravitational constant.

## Cavendish experiment setup

The Cavendish experiment uses a *torsion balance* to measure the weak gravitational force between lead balls. A torsion balance consists of a bar suspended at its middle by a thin wire or fiber. Twisting the wire requires a torque that is a function of the wire width and material.

### Gravitational force overcomes twisting resistance

The way it works is that the gravitational force attracting the balls together turns the bar, overcoming twisting resistance—or torque resistance—from the wire. That resistance is a function of angle turned and the *torsion coefficient* of the wire. At some angle, the torque resistance equals the gravitational force.

### Inertia causes oscillation

However, the inertia of the balls causes them to go slightly beyond the equilibrium point and thus create a harmonic oscillation around that point. The oscillation is also measured by the light reflected from the mirror.

The rate of oscillation is then used to determine the spring constant or torsion coefficient of the wire, which is necessary in the final calculation of **G**.

It is truly a clever experiment.

Cavendish Experiment uses torque to measure Gravitation Constant

### Original values and Dimensions

In Cavendish's original experiment, the following values were used:

Mass of large ball

M= 158 kg (348 lbs)Diameter of large ball

d= 30.5 cm (12 in)_{M}Mass of small ball

m= 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs)Diameter of small ball

d= 5 cm (2 in)_{m}Length of rod separating small balls

L= 1.86 m (73.3 in)Separation of large balls

L= 1.86 m (73.3 in)Distance between the centers of the large and small balls

R= 0.225 m (8.85 in)

More recent experiments have used other values.

## Equation for G

The derived equation for **G** is:

G = 2π^{2}LθR_{e}^{2}/T^{2}M

where

**G**is the Universal Gravitation Constant**π**is the Greek letter**pi**= 3.14...**L**is the length of the torsion bar**θ**is the angle the bar turns**R**is the equilibrium point distance between_{e}**M**and**m****T**is the oscillation frequency**M**is the mass of the larger object

(See Derivation of Gravitational Constant from Cavendish Experiment for details.)

The calculated value of **G** from this experiment is:

G= 6.674*10^{−11 }m^{3}/kg-s^{2}

Since a newton is equivalent to kg-m/s^{2}, **G** is also defined as:

G= 6.674*10^{−11}N-m^{2}/kg^{2}

The calculated value for **G** can then be applied to the *Universal Gravitation Equation*:

## Summary

Henry Cavendish performed an experiment to find the density of the Earth. Other scientists used his experimental setup to determine the value of **G**.

The setup consisted of a torsion balance to attract lead balls together, measuring the torque on a wire and then equating it to the gravitational force between the balls.

Then by a complex derivation, **G = 2π ^{2}LθR_{e}^{2}/T^{2}M** was determined.

Seek to find out the reasons for things

## Resources and references

### Websites

**Weighing the Earth in 1798: The Cavendish Experiment** - Victoria Chang, Stanford University

**Cavendish Experiment** - Harvard University Natural Science Lecture Demonstrations

**The Cavendish Experiment** - Good illustrations of experiment from Leyden Science

**Cavendish experiment** - Wikipedia

### Books

**Top-rated books on Gravitation**

## Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.

## Share

Click on a button to bookmark or share this page through Twitter, Facebook, email, or other services:

## Students and researchers

The Web address of this page is:

**www.school-for-champions.com/science/
gravitation_cavendish_experiment.htm**

Please include it as a link on your website or as a reference in your report, document, or thesis.

## Where are you now?

## Cavendish Experiment to Measure Gravitational Constant